At every level, the conflict within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains very complex. With over one hundred estimated rebel groups working both directly and indirectly in the Eastern Congo, one can find it difficult to distinguish all elements behind each pattern of violence when so much is connected.1 The high level of international entanglements complicates matters further, which plays out in a number of ways, the most harmful of which is in the form of ‘neocolonialist’ practices. Coined by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of independent Ghana, in 1961, his definition asserts that neocolonialism is present when “the State which is subject to it [neocolonialism] is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty” when “in reality, its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from the outside.”2 Neocolonialism is present when former colonial powers or new Western countries directly control the newly independent state by their sustained management of economic, political or social spheres. Though, neocolonialist practices do not imply only the former colonizer, it can include new external powers who act in imperialistic ways. In the context of the DRC, other African countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda, have enjoyed unbridled dominance over vast areas of its Eastern region. The Congolese leadership within the state condones and even fosters complacently these practices of exploitation and continue looking the other way. The most controversial aspect of a more general theory of post colonialism means admitting that colonial practices continue to be reproduced over time even if with some differences. Specifically, in the DRC, the politicization of ethic identity by each political entity, or individual, who uses ethnicity divisions to create, or stoke existing, tensions between groups gather more power and access to resources has wrecked havoc on people’s lives, destroyed local economies, and fostered the re-emergence of violence. Individuals in the Congolese government take advantage of resources to which they would otherwise have no claim. The abundance of renewable and nonrenewable resources is hard to resit and most do not care to. Natural riches are “estimated to include $24 trillion of untapped mineral resources”, this, along with rampant corruption, allows for groups outside, as well as many within, to continue the corrupt exploitation of the DRC.3 Unfortunately, as during colonial times, those who are victimized and lose the most are women, children, and local communities.
Abundance of natural resources, acres of fertile farmland and vast biodiversity generally bring to mind prosperity and peace, yet it continues to be a curse for the DRC that has been plagued with poverty, violence, oppression, and inequality for centuries because of the irresistible bounties. Montague and Berrigan assert that “the interplay among the seemingly endless supply of mineral resources, the greed of multinational corporations desperate to cash in on that wealth, and the provisions of arms and military training for political tyrants has helped to produce the spiral of conflicts that engulfed the continent – what many regard as ‘Africa’s First World War’” from 1996 to 2003.4 By the mid 1990s, the DRC continued suffering from the harmful practices of colonialism started by Belgians and exacerbated by Western countries and international corporations without any scruples. In 1994, as the fighting of the Rwandan genocide came to an end, paramilitary and military groups were pushed into the Eastern DRC by the French Operation Turquoise which provoked dramatic increases in violence in the entire region. By July 1994, after the end of the genocide, an estimated 2 million people took refuge in Goma, in Eastern DRC, then Zaire. Among them were some of the people who had perpetrated the genocide. To this day, Rwandan Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, (FDLR, its French abbreviation), remain the largest active rebel group within the DRC. With other foreign competing rebel groups clashing with Congolese governmental forces over control of the resources, Congolese civilians suffer the most with millions dead, displaced, or victims of rape the mid 1990s. Not only does the fighting contribute to the violence and suffering, rebel-controlled mines uphold dangerous working conditions. Unregulated prices of minerals force Congolese everyday people to survive in severe poverty with little ability to enact change on their own. Unfortunately, attempts to stop purchasing of minerals from these mines do more harm than good, as those who are truly affected are the individual Congolese citizens who mine for their subsistence, creating an environment ripe for militia recruitment, violence and more suffering.
The deep entanglements of outside forces within the DRC exacerbates the problem by fueling ethnic tensions by validating links to specific Rwandan or Ugandan backed forces. “[T]ribal boundaries are often blurred” and people from all sides admit that the conflicts are not “purely ethnic” but instead are generally influenced by “outside interests.”5 Lack of government protection from the violence further inflames ethnic issues as it forces people to “turn to their own ethnic group” for support and protection because “they don’t trust their government.”6 This feeling of distrust is warranted, as atrocities committed against communities have at times been carried out by government officials, military or otherwise.
The 2001 United Nations Panel of Experts Report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of DR Congo provides a very systematic and thorough entry into this very complex and interdependent set of issues. While this information in the report does not reflect the current specific international entanglements, it showcases the dangers of allowing greed, corruption, and complacency to run unchecked. Furthermore, it establishes clear patterns of exploitation that take place not only at the hands of those outside the boundaries of the DRC, but those within it as well. This time period is incredibly unique within the DRC, because of the turbulence within the government at the time. In 1997, Laurent-Désiré Kabila overthrew the thirty-two year regime of Mobutu, which had been backed by the West, particularly France, Belgium, and the United States of America, who funneled roughly 300 million dollars in weapons and 100 million dollars in military training to attempt to keep Mobutu in power.7 Many thought Kabila’s government would be a turning point for the state, but instead “ethnic tensions [were] exacerbated…arbitrary arrests [were] high…national police and army [had] virtually no limits on their authority…more journalists and human rights activists [were] jailed [in the first year] than in seven years under Mobutu [and] there [was] little due process of law.”8, 12 May, 1998.] While this took place, Rwanda and Uganda, who had originally helped Kabila in the overthrow of the Mobutu regime, invaded in 1998, because of the challenges to security to their states as the conflict spilled over borders from the Eastern DRC. However, this also opened an opportunity for neighboring governments and “it became clear that their interests were primarily to ‘derive substantial economic benefits to the mineral wealth of Eastern Congo.’”9 In all, this culminated in “the mobilization of ethnic fault lines and the irredentist politicization of ethnicity across borders” by all parties at play, as the quest for power and influence took precedence.10
This article surveys a broader scope of general exploitative practices by forces linked to Rwandan and Ugandan interests. It examines each country’s roles and connections to groups that operated in Eastern Congo following the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. Then, it provides a more thorough review of the elements from the UN report. While the panel who compiled the report have clear biases in their reporting or interviewing, they still present the most comprehensive account of the harm, violence, and exploitation that has taken place at the hands of the international community and they highlight those complicit in the state, and other individuals who operated in the DRC in the late 1990s. Specific instances from the report have been corroborated by other independent sources and allow a deeper the analysis.
In the 2001, UN panel of Experts Report, both Rwanda and Uganda’s armies and officials were identified as outside forces that inserted themselves into the conflict and used their positions to exploit the resources of the DRC. Beginning during the first “war of liberation,” when Rwanda and Uganda invaded Eastern Congo, both armies were shown to have taken part in mass looting of minerals, coffee, livestock and money. The Panel stated that the “exploitation was often carried out in violation of the sovereignty of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the national legislation and sometimes international law, and it led to illicit activities.”11 These activities “took different forms, including confiscation, extraction, forced monopoly and price-fixing.”12 By 1998, top military officers and government associates in both Rwanda and Uganda had acquired a deep understanding of where the resources were located, and what their potential was. Stockpiles of minerals, agriculture, forest products and livestock were drained between the month of September 1998 and August 1999 by all occupying forces and followed roughly the same pattern: “soldiers commanded by an officer, visited farms, storage facilities, factories and banks, demanded that the managers open the coffers and doors. The soldiers were then ordered to remove the relevant products and load them into vehicles. The Panel received numerous accounts and claims of unlawful removal of products by Rwandan or Ugandan armies and their local Rally for Congolese Democracy allies.”13 One specific instance of this was after one of the banks were emptied and the money taken to the Palm Beach Hotel. Here, “bags of money” were stored in a room, guarded by soldiers that spoke no Lingala, the most commonly spoken language in the DRC, until it was gathered by a known associate of the Rally for Congolese Democracy.14 Acts such as this, as well as others, were found to be “encouraged” and “sometimes organized and coordinated, by the highest army commanders” of both Rwanda and Uganda. After numerous interviews with witnesses “key and other,” the Panel further believes that “key officials” within both governments, Rwandan and Ugandan, must have been known the events taking place on the ground as “the level of production of mineral resources would have alerted any government, such as those of gold for Uganda and coltan for Rwanda.”15 Further damaging local communities, both states “abused the commerce and trade system” by “looting and harassing” owners of locally and foreign owned businesses, forcing them to close their doors. This gave what the Panel referred to as “unprecedented control of the economy of the Eastern and North-Eastern DRC.”16 Encouraged and facilitated by officials in both governments, both states were able to establish control over administrative structures by working to both “directly and indirectly” appoint Congolese in positions of power that would allow the exploitation to continue unchecked.17 The support of outside interests such as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Denmark, Germany, the United States of America, and the World Bank, further inflamed the issue. In the cases of the states, aid has been provided to both the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, and, with the incredible likelihood that both governments had been directly benefiting from the conflict, the Panel raised the question of how much of this aid allows for more financing of the war. For the World Bank, it was established that when the actions of both Rwanda and Uganda were called into question, the Bank dismissed the worries that came with the increased export of resources and instead defended their cases, which leads to the question of the compliance within the bank and whether they are more concerned with receiving payments, no matter the source of revenue. Finally, in regard to the broad scope, the Panel identified five areas of which demonstrate the pattern of exploitation. First, the ability of states to finance the war with their own resources. Second, the ability “to take resources from the enemies and use it to fight the so-called ‘self-sustaining’ war,” as is the case with Rwanda.18 Third, the aim of governments to exploit the situation of war and use it for the “transfer of wealth from one country to their national economy,” again in the case of Rwanda.19 Fourth, the exploitation that takes place at the hands of private citizens, businesses, and politicians of the DRC for “political, financial, or other gains.”20 Fifth, and finally, the use of incentives, mineral and otherwise, to fuel the conflict and provide cover over the patterns of exploitation.
Uganda has played a large role in the exploitation of the DRC, with “individual enrichment of top Ugandan military commanders and civilians” benefiting greatly from these practices.21 Key witnesses attest to the “eagerness of Ugandan forces to move in and occupy areas where gold and diamond mines were located.”22 Working in conjunction with Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former Vice President of the DRC, the Ugandan army also forcibly gained control of resources such as timber and coffee, which led to the bankruptcy of locals in several areas. Not only did Bemba facilitate and allow for the exploitation of resources, he actively worked to recruit boys as young as twelve years old to be trained by the Ugandan army to mine for their own benefit. The magnitude of this exploitation comes through in the discrepancies found in the production and export values for items such as coffee, cotton, tea, tobacco and in minerals, including gold and coltan, that were provided by Ugandan authorities. First, exports of gold greatly outpaced production of gold in Uganda. The Central Bank of Uganda addressed this issue with the International Monetary Fund by acknowledging there was a difference in production versus export, but that it was due to exports “leaking over the borders” from the DRC.23 With value of exported gold jumping from 23 million dollars in 1995 to 105 million dollars in 1997, the likelihood of it merely “leaking” in seemed incredibly low. Second, Uganda “has no known diamond production,” yet it began to export diamonds in 1997, following the occupation of Eastern Congo and continued to “consistently” be a diamond exporting state.24 Both of these discrepancies have been acknowledged by the World Bank, but they turned a blind eye and praised Uganda for being a success story of structural adjustment programs with its new debt relief program. Finally, the Panel concluded President Museveni had been informed of exploitation that was taking place on the ground, yet chose to not act, allowing for the activities to be carried out “undisturbed.”25
Rwanda has also played a part in the exploitation of the DRC, even reaching “proportions that made the war in the DRC a very lucrative business.“26 Discrepancies between sources and official documents raise a red flag. One specific case of this is with coltan and cassiterite. Between the months of November 1998 and April 1999, sources confirmed that roughly 2000 to 3000 tons of cassiterite and 1000 to 1500 of coltan were removed, but official documents only listed the removal of 200 tons of cassiterite and six tons of coltan.27 Also, like Uganda, Rwanda began to export diamonds around 1997, even though they have no known source on their territory. Not only were resources such as these targeted, a Rally for Congolese defector explained that banks were also targeted with the help of Rwandan soldiers. In one case, a couple of days after the bank received money to pay civil servants, “anywhere between one million and eight million dollars worth of Congolese francs” were stolen.28 Locals were also targeted for their property and life savings, as victims, witnesses and third parties attested to “Congolese civilians [being] injured or murdered for resisting the attempted seizure of property by the Rally for Congolese Democracy rebels and foreign soldiers.”29 As for mining, not only were local Congolese used to mine, but prisoners from Rwanda were brought into the DRC to mine in exchange for reduced sentences and money for food. This was confirmed by eyewitness accounts, Human Rights Watch and “numerous other reports.”30 Furthermore, the military seems to be “benefiting directly from the conflict” in five ways: “direct commercial activity; profit from shares it hold in some companies; direct payments from the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma; taxes collected by the ‘Congo desk’ and other payments made by individuals for the protection RPA provides for their businesses; and direct uptake by the soldiers from the land.“31 Finally, the Panel concluded that President Kagame, who had just taken office in early 2001, was complacent, to some degree, in the conflict and subsequent exploitation in three ways: his relationships with Rwandan business men who have “direct involvement in the exploitation of natural resources in the areas Rwanda controls” within the DRC, his control of the military and the structures that exist for the illegal activities to take place.32 In 2002, the Rwandan government agreed to withdraw its troops from the Eastern DRC and in November 2007, a final agreement was signed in Nairobi intended to end the conflict.33
Corruption and greed, along with established colonial practices that re-emerged within the DRC, allowed for violence to become ubiquitous. Bemba, aside from working with Ugandans, operated for his own benefit as did each of the Congolese supported groups. For example, Bemba’s soldiers removed approximately one and a half million US dollars from three banks in the DRC. Corruption within President Kabila’s regime ran rampant. He carried out a policy that required companies to hand over a certain percentage of profit to Kabila indirectly through his Minister Mpoyo. Even after his death, Laurent Kabila’s influence of corruption and greed remained throughout the DRC. First, a precedent was created that gave “legitimacy to otherwise illegal operations.”34 This was mainly done by granting concessions to invading powers with whom Kabila had become allied at the time. Rebel groups within the DRC simply carried on after his death. Second, “he allowed and tolerated some unlawful ventures as a way of rewarding allies [and] initiated the barter system in order to defend his territory,” which “gradually [became] the normal practice for the rebel groups.”35 Third, and finally, he originally proposed for people in power to consider the “redistribution of wealth” with their own “personal enrichment” in mind.36
In addition to damaging relations between ethnic groups within the DRC, communities, specifically women and children, suffer the most from this violent system that rewards greed. The total lack of government protection and accountability leaves both women and children completely vulnerable. Women are continually treated as “a spoil of war” and this practice which continues to this day.37: Motives of Militia in DRC. Special Report: 243. U.S. Institute of Peace.] In 2007 alone, 80% of women interviewed by the Harvard Humanitarian Institute stated that “their attacker was wearing some kind of uniform,” which showcased the complexity of the issue as there was no one women could turn to.38 : Motives of Militia in DRC. Special Report: 243. U.S. Institute of Peace.] Further complicating the issue is the incredibly traditional views of women’s role within society, as tradition perpetuates the idea that a woman’s purpose is to provide for the men in her life and allows men to rationalize the violence they commit against women. In an article for Human Rights Quarterly, Anna Maedl stated several of the reasons that women believed they have been raped: to impregnate, transmit disease, instill fear, displace communities, steal and several others.39 All of these demonstrate how women themselves have become another resource that is “lootable.”40 Children are also victimized in this situation. Based off more than 100 interviews done by World Vision, “more than one-third [of children said] they are afraid all of the time or every day…more than half are orphaned or separated from their parents…a quarter live without any adult support [and] more than a third describe[d] either witnessing or experiencing episodes of violence, at times extreme and graphic, in their lifetime.”41 Not only is their daily life plagued with intense violence, risk of forced recruitment of boys into armed groups remains a constant threat, specifically in the Northern and Southern Kivu areas. As children survice this violence, or flee from it, it further perpetuates a cycle that is hard to break, due to the lack of stability, lack of education, and loss of family support, all of which further destabilize the region.
While this can seem incredibly bleak, hope comes from the extraordinary resiliency of the Congolese people and of others affected. Through diligent and collaborative work, I believe that effective change can be made. Abstractly, there must be accountability for political figures, establishment of what justice would look like for victims and perpetrators, and a real assessment of international entanglements to establish whether they are exploitative in nature or not. More concretely, there must be development projects that give access to resources and funding to build business and empower communities, especially for women, provision of preventative and restorative health care, and finally, access to and empowerment through education, for all generations.